BREAKFAST CLUB

It's hard enough to get customers into restaurants, let alone supermarkets, for breakfast,.Yet a handful of independent retailers have found that unique offerings can make their stores a morning destination for retirees, busy moms and professionals looking to treat clients or employees.Breakfast is the most heavily trafficked meal of the day at Buehler's restaurants, according to Mary McMillen, director

It's hard enough to get customers into restaurants, let alone supermarkets, for breakfast,.

Yet a handful of independent retailers have found that unique offerings can make their stores a morning destination for retirees, busy moms and professionals looking to treat clients or employees.

Breakfast is the most heavily trafficked meal of the day at Buehler's restaurants, according to Mary McMillen, director of consumer affairs for the Wooster, Ohio-based company. Buehler's opened its first restaurant two decades ago, and now operates nine restaurants, dubbed "The Mill," and one Towne Market Cafe, all adjacent to 10 of the company's 11 supermarkets.

"We are very busy in the morning," said McMillen, noting that the restaurants are popular with businessmen for informal morning meetings and with older shoppers who have time to sit and linger over coffee.

The restaurants, featuring a variety of hearty platters of traditional breakfast favorites such as pancakes, sausage, bacon, eggs and hashbrowns, offer sit-down, cooked-to-order service, with seating capacities of up to 300 customers in one location.

McMillen attributed the restaurants' success at breakfast to widespread awareness of the restaurants among locals, as well as a perception of value vs. local restaurant competitors and lack of competition from other supermarkets.

"We're big stores in little towns," she said. "We used to have the luxury of being the main store in most of the cities we were located in, but that's not the case any longer. We compete against Giant Eagle, Super Wal-Mart, Meijer and Kroger, but none of them serve breakfast like we do. So, it is one way that we can differentiate ourselves from the competition."

That's not to say that the restaurants rest on their laurels in the morning and wait for customers to pour in. In addition to marketing efforts, such as breakfast specials offered until 10:30 a.m. daily, The Mill and Towne Market Cafe locations are able to leverage appealing amenities offered by their neighboring Buehler's as well.

"We have free child care while you're in our stores, where you can leave your kids for up to two hours," McMillen said. "So, we have a lot of moms who meet friends for breakfast or lunch, drop off the kids, take a break and do some grocery shopping."

Also, ever since the launch of Buehler's first restaurant, the chain has viewed restaurants as a logical extension of their stores. So, special orders -- such as requests for specific cereals, fruits or other breakfast foods -- are easy to fill.

"Within reason, if you ask us for an item that's not on the menu, we'll try to go out into the store and get it," McMillen said. "How would it look if a customer asked for bananas on their cornflakes and we said, 'I'm sorry, we don't have those,' when our store is right there?"

The restaurants also offer customers the option of ordering breakfast items anytime during the day -- something that McMillen said customers had requested. In fact, one industry consultant noted an all-day breakfast menu might be one way that other supermarket chains with regular deli and bakery departments could build interest in the morning daypart.

"The made-to-order breakfast opportunity is pretty limited for most supermarkets," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president for Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service research and consulting firm. "But one thing I would suggest is offering a breakfast menu around the clock. There are customers who are disappointed that they can't find a [quick-service restaurant] serving breakfast sandwiches after 11 [in the morning]."

"Breakfast is a tough nut for many restaurant operators to crack," he added. "There are a lot of operators that would love to be in the business in a more substantial way, but other than McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, for example, few are very competitive. Why isn't Subway a more formidable presence in the breakfast market? Why not KFC? Why not Taco Bell? Even casual dining restaurants such as Applebee's and Chili's avoid it."

The reasons, Goldin explained, are numerous. Notably, skipping breakfast continues to be the norm for many consumers -- almost 25% of adults in the United States say they never or only occasionally eat breakfast, and another 25% say they only eat breakfast three or four days per week, according to Mintel, Chicago.

In addition, the number of outlets offering a bite to eat in the morning has grown, and consumer expectations for breakfast have changed as a result. Starbucks, for example, now offers a small selection of food at its thousands of locations, and convenience stores have become more adept at merchandising coffee with products like thaw-and-serve muffins and pastries. Even items such as breakfast bars and meal-replacement beverages that consumers buy at the supermarket have emerged as a competitive factor for restaurants during the breakfast daypart.

"So, not only supermarkets, but also QSR chains that you would expect to be more competitive [during breakfast] just aren't," he said.

Of course, virtually every supermarket bakery department already offers some form of grab-and-go breakfast, such as doughnuts, pastries and bagels. But in the face of all the competition, it can be difficult to attract customers in the morning even when they're buying breakfast for co-workers or other groups.

As a solution, some supermarkets offer breakfast and brunch catering options. San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery's Central Market division, for example, offers a catering menu with various quiches, breakfast tacos, smoked salmon platters, fruit, pastries and bagels. At Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's Super Market locations, customers can place orders for pastry trays, muffin boxes and doughnut holes online, and then pick up their order at a store the next morning. Among the wide variety of trays offered at Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets, customers can choose from a selection of mini-bagels, doughnut trays, or even holiday breakfast pastry trays as well as pre-cut fruit trays, and hollowed out pineapple and watermelon "boats."

However, supermarkets hoping to attract large breakfast orders still have to stand out from the Dunkin' Donuts and regional bagel chains in their area.

Recognizing that no one wants to be the loser who brought stale doughnuts to the morning meeting, Riesbeck's Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio, makes them from scratch daily at their 14 stores.

"We make them fresh every day," said John Chickery, bakery director for Riesbeck's.

"If you eat a doughnut right out of the frier, right off the glazer, you get spoiled. There is a definite difference as far as quality goes," he said.

A pessimist might note that Krispy Kreme, also famous for its freshly fried treats, has struggled recently, blaming slowing sales on low-carb dieting, among other problems. Never mind health and dieting concerns -- doughnut sales at Riesbeck's bakeries have remained strong, Chickery said.

"We, as a small independent, have been very fortunate," he said. "It's actually been phenomenal -- even now, during the dog days of summer. Usually, when it's really hot, all sweets usually drop off, but our doughnut sales have been unusually strong."

Special orders for 2 to 4 dozen are heaviest in the morning, Chickery noted. To boost volume, customers are offered a simple deal: Mix and match their order for $4.79 per dozen, or take a box of 12 glazed doughnuts for $3.99.

"We do have people that take advantage of that, because they'll get a price break," Chickery said.